Thursday, January 27, 2011

Family Feud 1870's Style

For those of you coming in on this topic for the first time, Elizabeth Oakes Smith (1806-1893), was a poet and the first woman to make a living as a lecturer on women's rights. She lived in New York and is buried in Patchogue alongside her husband, Seba Smith, an early newspaper editor and political humorist. This picture shows her in her later years and is scanned from Mary Alice Wyman's book, Selections from the Autobiography of Elizabeth Oakes Smith.

I don’t mean to drag up century-old rag magazine fodder, but really, I think it’s fascinating and I hope Elizabeth Oakes Smith's ghost forgives me. After all, no one’s family is perfect and these stories add so much dimension to a local character who is almost 200 years older than I. Old newspapers suggest that EOS’s relationship with her sons and their wives was tumultuous, to say the least.

Let’s focus on her son Alvin (1832-1903), who married a Cuban woman named Delphina Alvarez in 1860. He served for the United States as Vice Consul to Uraguay under President James Buchanan. (1a) There is a house that is standing today in back of the Fish and Tackle shop on Main Street in Patchogue that I have I feeling was built for Alvin in the 1870's. I've been trying to gather evidence to support this guess. Lake View Cemetery surrounds it on three sides. I always thought the middle of a cemetery was an odd location for the house. Recently, I asked the Cemetery Restoration Committee Chairperson, Steve Gill, if the house had always been in that spot. He told me that the house used to be closer to the road and that at some point it had been moved back. A September 10, 1873 Brooklyn Eagle article places Alvin living near The Willows. That information supports my guess. Today the house is a three-family rental.

According to newspapers, the couple was living in EOS’s home, (The Willows) which stood at the front of what is now Lake View Cemetery, facing Main Street on the right side of the iron entrance gate, when Alvin had this new home built on the property. Here is an account of why the new house was built:

“Mrs. Alvin Oaksmith states that her marriage took place in Montevideo, South America, eleven years ago, and that she lived happily with her husband, and bore five children until they removed to Patchogue, where they have lived an unhappy life for two years. Soon after moving to Patchogue, the mother-in-law, who had broken up her other sons’ families, made the house too hot for Alvin’s young wife; and he procured a house for her adjoining his mother’s, and painted it green, where they lived and had one child, making six in all.” (2)

The house is no longer green and it is covered in vinyl siding. It was last renovated about three years ago. It is a really simple looking house, and I think it could definitely be that old, but I'd have to inquire at Village Hall to try and date the property. Here is an excerpt from a newspaper account of some of the family conflicts that happened while Alvin and Delphina were still living at The Willows:

“The people of Patchogue are just now enjoying a sensation at the expense of Alvin Oaksmith and his wife. On Monday he assaulted her in a most brutal manner, beating her about the head and face and inflicting such injuries as to cause her physician to fear for the safety of one of her eyes. For some days previous the poor woman had not been permitted to leave the house of her mother-in-law where she had been subjected to “the most heartless cruelties.” She made her escape about midnight by the assistance of a servant girl, and made her way to the house of a friend where she is at present stopping. Alvin was arrested and tried before Justice Price and a jury, who fined him $50, and placed him under bonds to keep the peace.” (1)

After the green house was built and the couple moved into it, fighting continued resulting in Delphina’s eventual estrangement from the children. Delphina claimed that Alvin and EOS took her children from her. This might have been the case, since the Joint Guardianship Act was enacted and repealed several times throughout the second half of the 19th century, and not officially established permanently in NY State until 1893.(3) Newspapers call Alvin a "wife beater" and it sure sounds like he was. Here's what happened at the green house:

“Alvin wanted money to establish himself in business. His mother knew two old maids in Elizabeth, NJ named Eaton, and after some negotiations they were taken to Patchogue as Alvin’s guests. Soon afterward one of them (Julia) lent him $3,300 in consideration of which he was to clothe and feed both, and pay the money back when he could. He started a grocery and dry goods store; and not long afterward, the old maids assumed control of the household, making his wife their servant. Mrs. Alvin Oaksmith says she bore all this without complaint. A short time since she executed a mortgage on the green house and the twenty acres of land connected with it, for $3,300, to one of the old maids for security for the money loaned to Alvin and she is and always was willing to give up everything if he would only give her the children and let her go to her mother in South America. She was so cruelly treated as to compel her to leave the house and seek shelter elsewhere.” (2)

So the Eaton sisters and Delphina violently clashed as well. A January 25, 1871 Brooklyn Eagle article reports that Julia Eaton on Patchogue was indicted last March for assault and battery of Delfina Oaksmith.

I really don’t understand how EOS could have defended her son’s violence toward Delfina. On one hand, I wonder, maybe Delphina was a psycho? Then I think the doctor’s comments confirm that her injuries were not imagined. I looked in EOS’s autobiographical notes to try and figure out what was going on here and why she would not defend a battered woman when she had, her whole life, been an advocate for women’s rights.

I put this question out there in the Universe, and what came back to me was a timeless lesson in family dynamics. This week all of my assignments for work (I’m a reporter) were related to local history. One of them involved the social prejudices of the area at the turn of the century and estrangements within a family that resulted in four children becoming orphans. This assignment shed light on my own research of EOS, which was unrelated in every other way. In all families and friendships, there are misunderstandings and hurt feelings that can fester because of pride or miscommunication, until the family unit is broken. Some breaks are messier than others. In the case of Alvin and Delphina it was particularly ugly. I hate to say it, but the media does not paint a pleasant picture of Alvin and there is no excuse for abuse in my mind. However, I come from a more liberal time.

The New York Times reports in an article dated February 3, 1873 that a divorce without alimony was granted to Delphina Oaksmith from Alvin Oaksmith. It seems that she left the children with the husband, but that might have been the law at that time, plus, she had no financial support for those 6 children. Here is an account of an incident that occurred involving the green house in 1874:

“On Monday of last week Alvin went to New York, and, during his absence, she went to the house to see her sick child, (eighteen months old), and found it locked into a bed-room. She took it away, and the next day went to the house to find every door locked. She climbed in through the window. At the top of the stairs she was met by one of the old maids, who tried to throw her down the stairs. In the struggle both fell. The old maid shrieked “Murder!” and ran for old Mrs. Oakes Smith. By this time Mrs. Alvin Oaksmith had secured another of her children and escaped to a neighbor’s house. She then procured a warrant for the arrest of the old maid, but before the warrant could be executed the mother-in-law had carried the latter to the L. I. Railroad, and she escaped to New York. Alvin, on his return, tried to have his wife arrested, but Justice Smith would not interfere. Thereupon the infatuated husband traveled 10 miles to Manor and procured a warrant. On this warrant it was that Mrs. Alvin Oaksmith was arrested, and her worthy lord’s mother and the old maids having appeared to prosecute her, is why Mrs. Alvin Oaksmith was bound to the peace.” (2)

I struggle with the media’s suggestion that EOS was a mean woman. I don’t believe that she was. In her autobiographical notes she alludes to family problems and suggests that her sons should never have married “foreigners.” However, she blames herself for introducing them into social circles that ultimately shaped their future in business and romance.

“Italians, Spaniards, Cubans were amongst our guests … I indirectly fostered the spirit of enterprise in my sons, naturally an ingredient in their compositions.” EOS explains that her sons escorted her to social gatherings because Seba Smith would not attend them. (4)

It looks like EOS suffered very much emotionally at the end of her life, and leaving the city for the small town of Patchogue was hardly an escape from gossip and social scorn. The whole picture is not here in the old newspaper clippings and it is interesting to think of what may be left out. I think EOS’s autobiographical notes paint the clearest image of who she was- or who she tried to be. Newspaper criticism affected her; stories regarding her family hurt her deeply. However, what she found most painful was not what the Horace Greelys of the world wrote about her professional or personal life. The most difficult thing to face was the reality of strained personal relationships. Here is an excerpt from her autobiographical notes:

“While I write these words this 30th of March 1885, I plainly see that I have suffered foolishly about much, that one of stronger make would have disregarded. I see that I have been cast upon the hard bones of the world armorless and bleeding, with no clear perception that the lack of high civilization will always rejoice in torturing the earnest-hearted, differing from the accepted standard. Now I see that these were honorable wounds face to the foe, and have really entered less deeply into me than the domestic, every day torture that a woman may be subjected to by unsympathetic relations.”(4)

1- Long Islander (Huntington) Feb. 4, 1870 “Outrageous Conduct of a Husband”
1a- This info was found at the EOS website maintained by T. Scherman. Go here to see pics of Alvin and Delphina. Very cool!
2- South Side Signal (Babylon) March 28, 1874 “The Troubles of Mrs. Alvin Oaksmith”
3- Women’s Rights Milestones in NY. Brooklyn Eagle, August 25, 1915.
4- Kirkland, Leigh, Ph.D. “A Human Life: Being the Autobiography of Elizabeth Oakes Smith” A critical edition and introduction (263, 266, 310)


Putz said...

my beloved hannah hibbert dalton barlow would be in her teens in 1874 living also in new york during this period, of course she wouldn't have been a barlow at this time only later when she came across the plains to tooele utah<><>it makes me wonder if she knew of all those shinanigans going on all around her

rhymeswithplague said...

Hello, Loren! For some unknown reason I have not been to your blog for several months, but I have no clue as to why it fell off my radar. I am pleased to return and find not only this stirring saga of EOS and her family but also to learn that your son is the new Charles Dickens. I have a lot of catching up to do.

Please tell Mr. Putz that everyone in New York did not know everyone else in New York, in 1874 or at any other time. He seems to listen to you.

Loren Christie said...

Hi Mr. Brague, Thanks for visiting. I'm really happy to hear from you!

Dear Internet Traveler,

Welcome to my writer's blog, started about six years ago for fun. Over time, the writing I have posted has ranged from personal reflection, to Long Island history research, to tall tales for my own amusement, to feature articles for local newspapers. As you can see from topics listed here, I travel in many mental directions in regard to interests. Click on the tabs and labels to explore my strange mind which senses that you may be having a criss-cross day. If so, perhaps this blog will distract you. However, please note that if you tell me my blog is beautiful just to get me to advertise rhinoplasty surgery and cheap drugs from Canada in your comment, I will ask the gods to give you a tail that cannot be concealed.


Loren Christie

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